November 18, 2018

Behind the stereotypes, Israelis are not one ‘people’

No politicians. No famous people.

Those were some of the rules that Donna Rosenthal set up for herself when writing, “The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land” (Free Press), first published in 2003. A special edition — updated with the most current events — is being released April 1 to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding.

Rosenthal also imposed other rules for herself, such as making sure that half the Jews included in the book were women and half the Jews were Mizrahi (Jews from Arab countries), and that she spoke to Arabs and Druze.

“I think it’s the first time you hear their voices,” she said in an interview.

She also limited the points of view of immigrants from English-speaking countries, whom, she says are regularly featured on news reports like CNN because reporters want native English-speakers.

“But only 120,000 people from Israel were born in an English-speaking country,” Rosenthal said.

“I tried to be demographically representative of the country itself,” she said. “I wanted people to speak in their own words and smash stereotypes.”

She wants to smash the view of Israel as a country only of soldiers, ultra-Orthodox or other black-and-white portrayals in the news; Israel being the country with the most journalists per capita in the world, Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal, a journalist from Encino who attended Birmingham High School, set out to write about the country as a primer for journalists.

A CNN International producer once told her about Israel: “Our viewers are confused. We have footage of Jews who look like Arabs, Arabs who look like Jews. We have black Jews. Bearded 16th century Jew, and sexy girls in tight jeans. Who are these people anyway?” she writes in her introduction.

Who, indeed? In “The Israelis,” she sets out in 400 pages to show the people of Israel in a unique light by focusing on everyday people rather than politicians, who often speak for the country.

“This is a book about ordinary people trying to live normal lives during abnormal times,” she writes. “The Israelis in these pages are not politicians or generals or guests on CNN, BBC or Al Jazeera. They are a disparate mix of radically modern and devoutly traditional.”

Rosenthal paints a picture of Israel’s diverse, ever-changing demography by dividing her book into chapters on each different subdivision in society — Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, Russians, Ethiopians, Druze, Bedoin, Muslim and Christians. Among the dozens of people she profiles in each chapter, Rosenthal embeds the history of how they came to live in the country and what their situation is like today.

Chapters on other factions, such as the Charedim and the Orthodox (who are often lumped together by outsiders, but are nationalistic and serve in the army and mix with modern society), and the non-Orthodox, who are finding different ways of being religious and challenging the Orthodox hegemony.

The book also covers topics essential to understanding subjects in Israel, like army culture, the high-tech boom, gays, dating, marriage and divorce, and criminality, such as drugs and prostitution.

“It’s not a melting pot. There’s no such thing as a melting pot,” she said. “It’s colliding worlds.”

There’s Naomi Kehati, a clinical psychologist born to parents from Yemen who tried to bleach her skin when she was 5 because she wanted to be “white.” There’s Boris Katz, who only knew the Hebrew words Shalom and masehot (gas mask) when he emigrated from Russia at 17 right before the Gulf War.

There’s “Benjamin Stein,” the pseudonym of a 35-year-old Charedi man with 10 children, who married at 20 to a 16-year-old woman after two walks in the park.

There’s Omar, a 25-year-old Muslim baker who left his village and family because he was gay.

And Natalia, who answered an ad from Moldova to find herself a sex slave in Tel Aviv until a police raid, after which she turned state’s witness.

Sounds confusing? Only in the same way that an immigrant or visitor to the United States, who thinks it is solely comprised of people like Paris Hilton, Tom Cruise and Snoop Dogg, discovers its diversity. If the United States is so much more than what is portrayed in the movies, then Israel is more than it is portrayed in snippets on the news.

“It’s human nature that we hang out with people who have similar politics and background as we do,” Rosenthal said.

What has pleased her in the five years since the book came out was the warm reception it’s received from people on all sides of the political and religious spectrum.

“Everyone assumes I’m them,” Rosenthal said. “If I show up in an Orthodox synagogue and I’m dressed in jeans people are stunned I’m not Orthodox.”

Rosenthal doesn’t divulge her political or religious views for that reason; she wants the subjects to speak for themselves.

What has pleased her most is the reaction the book has received in Israel.

“Israelis are telling me they’re discovering the Christian family down the block, or the Ethiopian family that they didn’t know,” she said.

“The Israelis” is being taught at universities in Israel in English, and it has been translated into Japanese, German and Chinese. While her American audiences have been primarily Ashkenazi, she said the experience is edifying.

“Jews have to learn about each other,” she said.

The updated edition covers the most recent events, from the war in Lebanon and the shelling of Sderot to the latest presidential misconduct scandal. Rosenthal says she was at the printer until the very last minute making up-to-date changes.

As far as her “prognosis,” of what is going to happen (one NPR interviewer asked her, “So what’s the final solution for the Jews?”) in the future, this cataloguer of Israeli minutia is not going to make any broad, sweeping statements.

“I wrote a lot of the book on Rechov Hanivi’im,” she said, referring to a Jerusalem street that means the Street of the Prophets. “I learned you should never make predictions about the Holy Land. Things can change overnight.”

What Does Israel Mean to You?

Send us a 500-1,500 word essay on this topic by April 20. We’ll print a selection of the most powerful writing in our special “Israel at 60” issue on May 16, 2008. Please e-mail your entry to and put “What Israel Means to Me” in the subject line.